The Heavens Declare…and Captain Kirk Agrees

By Neil Earle

The fuss over William Shatner in space has been a welcome distraction from the chaotic news of late. William Shatner played dashing Captain Kirk in the 1960s sci-fil series “Star Trek” which has one of the loyalest fan bases in pop culture.

In a TV interview on September 5 the veteran actor was quite eloquent in his praises for the whole notion of the universe, space and the feelings of majesty it often evokes. He spoke in near-1960s terms about the earth as a “precious jewel” and the wonders of the spectacular beauty in the heavens.

These mentions were voiced by the author of Psalm 19 thousands of years ago: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Jim Lovell

Astronauts and Atheists

William Shatner’s reminiscences reminded some of us of a certain age of how the early astronauts had to be toned down by NASA for their excited exclamations about how the view from space triggered almost religious-like moments! Trained scientists that they were, they often rhapsodized about the views they saw from beyond the dark delirious blue. Most famous was the reading of Genesis 1 by Borman, Lovell and Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 from the capsule of Apollo 8, beamed back to the largest TV audience on earth at that time.

Such activity drew the fury of noted Sixties atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hare, who apparently took NASA to court over the event. This may have been the time a federal judge refused to hear the case, quipping somewhat tongue in cheek that “this is out of my jurisdiction.”

(It is also more than a little ironic that Ms. O’Hare’s son became a Christian minister!)

Times do change.

Accident or Design?

But not everything. Here was Jim Lovell in a very recent interview recalling his experiences after his real-life adventure in space, putting his thumb up to Apollo 13’s portal to cover the blue planet far below him. It gave him a profound sense of humility about our place in the universe. He spoke in the near-religious terms that are now more in vogue.

Astronaut Haise was in Memphis in 1995 and I got an autograph for my Ninth Grade Bible class – he was the one who got the flu on Apollo 13 but was hale and hearty when we met.

“There’s an old saying, ‘I hope to go to heaven when I die,’” Lovell explained. “Suddenly, it dawned on me that we went to heaven when we were born! We arrived on a planet that had to have the right amount of mass to have the gravity to contain water and an atmosphere, just the right distance from the sun.”

Lovell is here giving a causal reiteration of the Anthropic Principle, the idea that things are just right on Planet Earth because a Master Designer made it so. This theory is tenaciously resisted by skeptics because it seems an ace card in the deck of those who plumb for a Higher Divine Intelligence behind everything, we see about us ‐ and casually take for granted. Yet here is trained scientist Lovell doing the honors.

“It appeared to me,” concluded Lovell, “that God had given mankind sort of a stage to perform on. I guess how that play will turn out is up to us.”

Theologians have seen the earth as the stage set for the plan of Redemption and here is assent given by a man not known for strong religious views.

That shot of “Earthrise” which Anders took while floating serenely from Apollo 8 certainly changed human psychology back on earth. Soon after the success of Apollo 11 came the first Earth Day in April, 1970. That early space program cut across a wide swath of culture. Canadian actor Ryan Gosling was right when he claimed that the moon landing celebrated in his movie The First Man, was a signal event for the whole human race!

Intriguing isn’t it – how humanity’s most colossal technological triumph took some key participants back to the words written at least 2500 years ago: “When I look at your heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou are mindful of him, or the son of man that thou dost care for him” (Psalm 8:3-4, RSV).

There are things that happen sometimes that are truly out of this world.